Ever since Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise proved to be inexplicable box-office dynamite, it seemed inevitable that other toy-based franchises would find their way onto our screens.
There’s been plenty of talk about a Monopoly film (coming from Ridley Scott, of all people), but it’s Hasbro’s Battleships that’s the first real game adaptation to follow.
Battleships, for those who don’t know, is a fairly simple strategy board-game whereby one must guess the location of the opponents ships on a hidden board. Hours of fun! But how to convert that fun into a cinematic experience?
Well, if you’re Hancock director Peter Berg, you play things very, very close to the established Transformers formula. Battleship has already been reduced to “Transformers-at-sea!”, and there’s certainly some truth to that, but Battleship is not quite as derivative as that might imply, and nor does it share that other franchise’s shortcomings.
In his second big-budget outing of the year, Taylor Kitsch stars as Alex Hopper, a self-destructive young man who is coerced by his older, more successful and grounded brother (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard) into joining him in the navy to straighten him out, only to find himself caught in the middle of an alien invasion.
Kitsch gets to play a much funnier and more relaxed hero than he did in John Carter, and while the rest of the big names in the cast don’t get a great deal to do, Kitsch’s easy charm carries things ably.
Perhaps the most notable other members of the cast are the female leads; a pop-star and a swimwear-model. Usually, that should set alarm bells ringing, but both Rihanna and Brooklyn Decker segue effortlessly into their new career paths. Rihanna, as tough Petty Officer Raikes, only gets one note to play, but she plays it well, while Decker gets more to do as physical trainer – and Hopper’s love interest – Samantha.
Aside from that, the film is also brave in striving to cast genuine naval veterans amidst the action. Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales is portrayed by Gregory D. Gadson, a real-life veteran who lost both of his legs in the service of his country. This, along with a group of more aged veterans who are called back into service to help fight the alien menace, helps add some poignancy to proceedings (as well as providing some amusing back-and-forth with the younger characters/actors).
Heavy patriotism can often leave a sour taste, but this is all so good natured, and the film so clearly nonsense, that it just works, in a cheesy sort of way.
The plot – such as it is – involves a group of technologically advanced aliens winging their way to Earth to rain down total destruction upon everything and anything. It’s never quite clear why, but they’re clearly pissed off about something. Charged with saving them are Hopper and a small group of Battleships out on a naval exercise just off Hawaii, who find themselves trapped within an impenetrable force-field. As you might imagine, much mechanical chaos ensues.
The alien ships are an impressive creation, and their arsenal formidable. Less successful are the aliens themselves, but thankfully, as the title suggests, the primary focus is on the ships. The action, while as frenetic and frenzied as you’d expect, is far thankfully more coherent than anything in the Transformers films.
Given that the film is backed by Hasbro, the plot even finds a way to have a set-piece that almost exactly replicates the game-play of the board-game. You might not think that could work on the screen, but the film does a surprisingly good job of justifying it, and it’s one of the more tension-wracked sequences in the film. If nothing else, it’s a nice break from the manic sound of screeching metal and things blowing up.
Inevitably, if you actually stop and think about anything that’s happening on screen, everything falls apart. Why do supposedly intelligent aliens rely ENTIRELY on a computer to tell them what’s a “threat”, rather than using even the slightest bit of common sense? If they’re from a planet just like ours, why exactly are they allergic to sun-light?
It’s all nonsense, but you get the sense that the film knows it. When one character resolves, “Let’s buy the Earth one more day!”, another retorts, “Who even speaks like that?” It’s a necessary line to cut through the cheese (the film is full of such gleeful clunkers), and it’s the most obvious example of the film having its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.
Not a film of subtlety, Battleship is a great, honking, bulldozer of a film, that relentlessly batters you with machismo, gung-ho patriotism and some fantastic CGI. But it does it all with such panache and such a sense of fun that it’s hard not to get caught up in the giddy experience.
If anything, Berg’s Battleship might just have beaten Bay’s Transformers at their own game.
Released in UK cinemas on Wednesday 11th April 2012 by Universal Pictures.
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